On April 13, 2016, South Korea held the National Assembly Elections. Three hundred representatives were to be elected in 13,837 election districts, including 253 from single-seat constituencies and 47 from the party lists (on pro rata basis). The Central Election Commission reported that the voter turnout amounted to 58% (a 3.7% increase over the 2012 elections). There were no crude violations registered that could radically change the outcome of the elections. Thus, the results can be already assessed.
It is important to analyze them since the ruling Conservative Party has lost both the elections to the left-wingers and the majority in the National Assembly. Even conservatives themselves defined the results as a total political setback. The number of their seats in the Parliament dropped from 152 to 122 despite the fact that the authorities had played all their cards (including the North Korean) to heat up pro-conservative sentiment among the South Koreans.
It turned out, however, that voters perceived country’s internal problems as something much more important, and the voting results reflected their disposition. These problems include consequences of the “conservative offensive” (a phenomenon we have discussed many times; sluggish economy (youth unemployment rate climbed to 12.5%, economic growth rate is down to 2.9%, amendments to the Labor Code and consequent mass protests); overly optimistic expectations of Park Geun-hye’s social state policy. Foreign policy issues, including the deployment of the US Missile Defense Systems could have played a role as well. President Park by no means is personally responsible for all the shortcomings. However, the South Koreans tend to hold President and her Party accountable for all misfortunes despite the fact that politicians that are more conservative dominate in the Saenuri Party.
In fact, as a result of the inter-factional struggle, some regional leaders who had not made it to the party list successfully ran as independents just a week before the elections, and won 11 seats in the Parliament, mainly in the regions traditionally supporting Saenuri. The ruling party also lost 70% of its seats to the opposition in the capital. Even the Mayor of Seoul (a conservative and a sound politician) suffered a major blow losing to one of the democratic leaders.
A low turnout of the ruling party supporters, who were assured by the results of surveys taken prior to elections that the ruling party had high chances of winning, was named as another reason for the defeat of Saenuri. Although now they are saying that pre-election surveys were incompliant. For example, according to the South Korean legislation, social polls over mobile phones are prohibited. While the majority of people who have corded telephones are either retirees or young mothers, and both groups support predominantly the Saenuri Party. Besides, as it now appeared, either some polls were falsified, or respondents were reluctant to disclose their real political preferences fearing accusations of either leftism or pro-North Korean sentiment.
Ultimately, conservatives overdid it with the pre-election propaganda campaign, especially in terms of overexploiting the North Korean theme. This is an important lesson for them to learn. The South Koreans, especially younger generation and residents of Seoul, were skeptical of the “sensations” released by the authorities right before the elections and cast their votes for the opposition just to show their discontent with the pre-election political games. However, voting for the opposition was not so much a demonstration of disapproval of Park Geun-hye’s inter-Korean policy as a sign that the citizens rejected bear-faced attempts to escalate the relations between the two Koreas.
As a result, on April 14, 2016, Saenuri’s leader Kim Moo-sung stepped down from his post having assumed responsibility for the Party’s defeat. He noted that the Party accepted people’s “harsh judgment” for failing to address their needs despite following the principle of “friendly conservative policy” and for being unsuccessful in bringing changes, which the country desperately needed.
The South Korean Democratic Party held 127 seats prior to the elections and before the split. After the elections, it gained 123 seats, which is one seat more than the Saenuri Party did. Right before the elections, Moon Jae-in temporarily resigned from the post of the Party leader handing full leadership authority to the economist Kim Jong-in (a former member of Park Geun-hye’s team). However, the victory of the Democratic Party in the elections indicates that Moon Jae-in may still make a comeback as he has vowed to quit his political career in case the Party loses the elections.
Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party gained 38 seats, but statements made by the South Korean mass media pointing that some Saenuri’s supporters gave their votes to the People’s Party, appear to be ungrounded. In his election campaign agenda, Ahn Cheol-soo promoted “a shift away from the epoch of ideological opposition, regional disputes and civil divisions, and the beginning of a new era of an alternative, people-oriented, real-life policy combining sensible progress and reformatory conservatism.” In other words, Ahn promoted himself as a centrist trying to gain votes of both left- and right-wingers. However, his party’s agenda was more popular in the regions traditionally supporting opposition than in Seoul. Thus, the People’s Party program was embraced by a larger part of the South Jeolla Province and the city of Gwangju — a traditional “headquarters” of the most blatant opposition. The Party won only two parliamentary seats (one of which is held by Ahn) in other election districts.
In fact, the People’s Party heralded the ideas of those left-wingers who were looking for radical changes denouncing a traditional two-party system. It seems that this result is unexpected for Ahn, as it significantly reduced his chances of gaining support of both left- and right-wingers.
The Justice Party founded on the ruins of the Unified Progressive Party gained 6 seats (only two of them were won in election districts). Its predecessor held 13 seats. However, considering restrictions imposed after the sensational “Lee Seok-ki case,” this result can be deemed rather fair.
As for the radical right parties located right after Saenuri on the political spectrum, none of them will be represented in the Parliament.
So, what is the overall result? The left-wingers, and, first of all, the People’s Party, are celebrating the victory as they recall that the President wanted “people to judge the democrats,” but instead, people judged her. However, the situation is not as simple, as it may seem.
First, the current results of the elections are not final. After each elections, rivals accuse each other of breaching the electoral law. Thus, the South Korean prosecution authorities have filed cases against 104 lawmakers-elects (out of 300) for election-related offenses (that is a 31.6% increase over the 2012 elections). Among the identified violations more than 40 % account for misleading propaganda, 18% – attempts of bribery, 8% – manipulation of public opinion. In comparison with the previous elections, the number of cases of propaganda increased 1.8 times, while manipulation of public opinion – 3.2 times.
In total, 1,451 people are accused of election-related offenses (by 32.4% more than in 2012), which means that some candidates’ mandates may be invalidated, and that the ruling party may still get another chance. Some independents may be reinstated as members of the Saenuri Party.
Secondly, since neither the democrats, nor the conservatives have the majority in the Parliament, they would have to side with either the independents or Ahn to have their proposals approved. Taking into account the existing factional struggle and the tendency of left-wingers to torpedo any Park Geun-hye’s initiatives (even reasonable ones) for sheer principle, the Parliament’s work as a body of legislative power may be paralyzed impeding not only activities of the conservatives, but halting its operation as a whole.
In other words, the defeat of right-wingers by no means implies the victory of left-wingers. In the meantime, the President will have to deal with a less cooperative Parliament. That might undermine her political heft making her a “lame duck” much earlier than her last year. As for the presidential candidate, no particular decision has been worked out yet.
Though Kim Moo-sung has resigned from the position of the Party leader, he has not quit his political career. Considering an extended struggle in the Parliament, conservatives are likely to nominate someone with tougher conservative stance than that of Park Geun-hye. It could be a hardliner like Kim Moo-sung or an extremist like Chon Mon Zhong.
As for the left-wingers, they do not seem to have competent and influential members for nomination so far. Besides, it is highly doubtful that these three parties will be able to engage in a constructive collaboration. So far, it is not clear how they will handle the task of nominating one candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. In view of the increasing tension between the Parties’ leaders, the probability that one will yield in favor of another is considerably lower than that in 2012.
Therefore, if nothing extraordinary happens (a force majeure, a high-profile political scandal or an emergence of a “rising star” of Ban Ki-moon type), most probably, a conservative nominee will take office simply because the camp of the left-wingers bloc is incapable of nominating a candidate because of the lack of unity.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”